“Bro I wouldn’t pick this to be my first comp. if I’d never competed before.” I was standing at on the perimeter of the gym at Cal State Dominguez Hills with a couple hundred Crossfit beasts waiting for the judges to break down the schedule of the day. It was my second competition, and my little brother Jake’s first. We don’t train at a Crossfit, and Jake just learned how perform some of the required movements the week before. Somehow I thought it would be a good idea to enter the open division, where we were summarily smacked around like a couple of pups among brutes. Most of the competitors were monstrous, and all of them were prepared. We were not, and we were destroyed.
In some ways we held our own, and in others we were humiliated. For three days after, both of us were hit with profoundly painful muscle soreness, and I didn’t even want to move. 100 pullups had their way with me. But at day four, I became overwhelmed by a masochistic urge to compete again. Maybe at a lower level, and definitely with a renewed sense of preparation and humility.
I hear a lot about how competition is not healthy. It fosters attitudes oriented toward conflict, it creates a culture of winners and losers, it encourages cheating, and it robs activities of their innate joy and wonder. Of course there is truth to this, but I am convinced that the benefits of competition vastly outweigh—or maybe swallow up—the negatives. Competition is not a zero-sum game. It hurts, and it’s good for us.
Competition shows you what you are, without emotion. No hurt feelings. No agenda. You can punch a mirror all day long because you don’t like what you see, but you’re better off mixing in a shave and some hair product to improve your appearance instead of raging against the facts. Competition doesn’t breed cheating. It shows you a cheater. A-Rod, Bonds, Lance Armstrong—competition showed us the character flaws that led to cheating. These men are better off knowing who they are, and what they have done. Would they have cheated without the competitive pressures? Probably not. And they would have remained ignorant with respect to who they are as men. Competition shows us what we are and where we are, and it puts us in place to decide what we want to become.
Competition breeds a perfect mix of failure and success. When you compete, you nearly always fail in the ultimate goal. By definition there can be only one champion. But failure isn’t ironclad. Break down any failed effort; analyze its composition. It’s not comprised of 100% failure with zero impurity. At our comp. last Saturday my deadlift was above average for my body weight, my power clean is on par, and my rowing technique falls apart with fatigue. Jake learned in a week a new movement that takes a lot of Crossfitters months to nail down. Failure is contaminated with success, and it’s only a matter of time before full blown infection sets in.
Competition is most important because it shows us what’s important. Winning is not the most important thing. Having fun is not the most important thing. But competition creates a climate where those virtues that are truly important in life become magically visible. There are few beautiful moments in life that you can only see when they’ve been illuminated by competition.
Competition raises the stakes. It demands preparation, sacrifice, time—investment. And when the stakes are raised, we find out what we truly value. We discover character, humanity, selflessness.
A girl hits a homerun in a softball game and injures her knee rounding the bases. The opposing team carries her around the bases, because the rules prohibit her own teammates from doing so. It gives you goosebumps. Why? It’s the competitive nature of the game. If there is no competition, if there is nothing at stake, then this act from the other team means very little. But we all know something magical is happening, and it’s hard to articulate what it is. It’s competition. This team has something to lose. And they are sacrificing victory–their competitive goal–for something that is MORE important.
It’s the same with the learning disabled boy this video. I almost started crying while watching, and when I finished it hit me that we need competition in order to see moments like these. Think about what it takes to be on this team: The time, the dedication, the ability, the patience—the fact that this team manager stuck through all of this knowing that he would not see the court makes his commitment that much more amazing. Add to this the team’s willingness to sacrifice much of what they worked for, to behave in such a way that runs counter to everything they train and play for—to do this in honor and recognition of their team manager is incredible, emotional, and profound. Then finally for THE OTHER team to do the same? All of this respect, kindness, and ultimately JOY that results in a moment of pandemonium that most of them will treasure for their entire lives—we see this moment because of competition.
Life is full of moments that are difficult to understand, impossible choices, and sometimes it seems downright senseless. But competition simplifies the world, and it does so without sacrificing the truth. Instead it tells the truth about what we are, what we can become, and why winning and losing is just a means to a greater understanding of what is important in all of our lives.